A heavily armed CRS, or Compagnies RÃ©publicaines de SÃ©curitÃ© (the French National Police), officer brought his baton down on my hand as he prevented me from carrying a box of food to a group of refugees.
This unnecessary aggression reinforced a total prohibition on helping people in desperate need.
This is Calais, France, in 2017, where a group of a hundred or so refugees had gathered on the wasteland near what is being called the new jungle (though see my previous post) in expectation of getting food and water.
The van from the warehouse of L’Auberge des migrants and the Calais Refugee Kitchen had duly turned up, the smell of hot food wafting from the tailgate.
We had arrived to rendezvous with some young Eritreans in need of a shower and a change of clothes.
But between us and our friends was a row of CRS vans and heavily armed officers toting pepper spray, CS gas, rubber bullets and other weaponry. There were probably more paramilitary police than volunteers, and they were there to ensure that no one got fed today.
An awkward stand-off ensued.
As we waited, municipal police turned up on motorcycles and proceeded to issue fixed penalty notices on the vans from the warehouse. They were fined 130 euro (around $146) for various violations.
We could not quite work out what rules had been infringed.
Recently, one van was fined for being a few kilos overweight. These citations seemed to be for being “illegally” parked, though how you can do that in an industrial estate, where vehicles are left at rakish angles to the curb all over the place, is unclear.
Finally, one volunteer named Vincent decides that this has gone on long enough and, with a few of us in tow, he grabs baskets containing takeaway boxes filled with food and leads us toward the line of CRS officers.
We intend to feed some people. It’s why we’d come.
As soon as we reached the line, we are stopped and pushed back. A few volunteers take individual meal packs and walk toward the refugees. They too are stopped.
One has the lunch box knocked out of her hand, and its contents land on an officer. She is led away by a group of police for “assaulting” one of their own but quickly released.
Another volunteer has his mobile phone taken off him by a burly policeman who doesn’t like being filmed.
Amid howls of indignation from onlookers and some remonstrating from his colleagues, he tosses it over his head in the direction of a gaggle of volunteers, one of whom catches it and returns it to its owner.
This display of casual brutality is daily life for those we’ve come to feed.
It is clear that the CRS line is not going to break; indeed, it is being reinforced as all this is going on.
More vans are arriving and joining the barrier; more heavily armed officers are disgorged and join the thickening blue line.
Behind them, we notice a van arriving full of border force officers. They start rounding up the refugees, pepper spraying the rocks they are seated on, bundling some into their van and chasing others off. About a dozen are taken away.
It is clear that we can do no more.
The few refugees left soon melt away into the woods, making themselves scarce. Hurried phone calls and gesturing from one of the volunteers indicate they will try to meet them and at least give them water on this hot afternoon.
We head for our vehicles on the other side of the police line.
Vincent asks if we can go through and is told firmly, “no.” He asks the young officer why, expecting to be told something about orders or operational safety. But the young man fixes his gaze and tells him, “Because it annoys you.”
Vincent marvels at his honesty as we walk around the block chuckling in the early summer sunshine to approach our cars from the other end.
It seems that the Prefect of Calais has decided that, though the court in Lille declared it illegal to prevent the feeding of refugees, he can determine how many times a day they will eat. And he has decided that once a day is sufficient.
So distribution, under the watchful gaze of the police, will be allowed between 6 and 8 in the evening.
We wonder if the prefect and the CRS officers are on this one-meal-a-day diet. By the look of a good number of his officers, they are not.
For the refugees who have fled war or the threat of persecution in their own countries, traveled often-dangerous routes for many months, this is yet one more indignity visited on them by the home of human rights. It makes you proud to be European!
We head home to guiltily partake of lunch and post our experiences on Facebook and Twitter.
Simon Jones is ministry team leader at Bromley Baptist Church in Bromley, a suburb of London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, A Sideways Glance, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @bromleyminister.
A writer and Baptist minister, Jones is about to step down from his role as Vice Principal of Spurgeon’s College in London to concentrate on working with Peaceful Borders, offering support to displaced people in Calais and London.